Tough Topics Challenging Office Conversations

Turning Reluctance into Change: Top Tips for Getting Buy-In at Your Firm

This column is adapted from the author’s book, The Linchpin. This content focuses on Angela Richardson, a fictional legal administrator, fighting to transform a stagnant, hierarchical law firm culture into a thriving, collaborative environment. Earlier in the book, Angela comes to understand the need for change in the firm at a deeply personal level. 

Gary G. Allen, Esq.

Everyone knows when Horace Nelson, the firm’s founding partner, is in the office. His voice has an unapologetically gritty timbre, and it penetrates every corner, punctuated by creative epithets that only the son of a forklift operator could conjure. It seems like he is always talking, until he stops and stares at you, standing 6 feet, 4 inches with a steely, blue-eyed gaze. In the courtroom, countless witnesses have wilted before this visage, and it is no different in the office. The staff react to him as if he were a hungry lion escaped from the zoo.

Angela knows the road to change goes through Horace. His son Atticus may be the managing partner now, but Horace’s force of personality makes him the real power. And Horace hates change. He is rightly proud of what he has built and shows no interest in modernizing the firm.

After meeting with her confidant Marcia, whom she met through the Association of Legal Administrators, Angela develops an idea to begin moving key computer applications in the firm to the cloud, starting with transitioning from an old server-based version of Microsoft Office to MS 365.

Angela’s steps echo in the hallway as she screws up her courage and approaches Horace’s office. “Horace, can we discuss something that could significantly benefit the firm?” Angela begins, standing at Horace’s door, surrounded by the symbols of the firm and his personal achievements. Horace bellows, “I know! How about somebody, besides me, bills some hours?”

Horace listens to Angela’s proposal with a blend of skepticism and impatience. “Angela, this firm has thrived on the foundation I established from the beginning. We just have to be great at winning cases and everything flows from that. These technologies you're pushing — they’re not for us. We’ve been successful without them.” He dismisses the idea with an icy glance that leaves no doubt the conversation is over.

Feeling disheartened but not ready to give up, Angela again seeks Marcia’s counsel. After hearing the story, Marcia says, “Friend, I feel for you. I have raised my head many times to propose new initiatives, only to have it nearly bitten off. There is nothing more difficult in my job than change management. Over the years, however, I’ve learned some techniques that help a lot.”

Marcia continues, “At the end of the day, it’s all about building trust. The lawyers want to practice law. If you can gain their trust on the business side, they will defer to you one day. I’m going to email you a document with some helpful techniques I have learned over the years.” A moment later, she clicks send and Angela receives this summary: 

Change Management Techniques

  • Involve leadership: Secure early support and involvement from firm leadership to drive the change.
  • Articulate a clear vision: Clearly define the vision and measurable objectives for the change.
  • Engage stakeholders: Include stakeholders at every level in planning and implementation to build support and reduce resistance.
  • Maintain open communication: Keep communication channels open to address concerns and share progress.
  • Provide training and support: Offer necessary training and support to help employees adjust to the new culture and technologies.
  • Implement performance incentives: Use performance-based incentives to encourage productivity and innovation.
  • Collect feedback and adapt: Establish feedback mechanisms to continually refine and enhance the change process.
  • Celebrate successes: Acknowledge and celebrate milestones to sustain momentum and morale.
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“Thanks Marcia, I love this. But help me understand how to apply this to my issue with Horace,” says Angela, and the two begin to delve into the root issue: The firm’s resistance to change is not solely about technology; it's deeply embedded in the culture. From day one, Horace has taught the lawyers that they need to focus on their cases, and nothing else matters.

“Angela, maybe we’re attacking this from the wrong angle," Marcia suggests. "What if we first focus on fostering an entrepreneurial culture? Horace is worried that people aren’t billing enough. What if you tied productivity directly to compensation? That might pave the way for technological adoption later on.”

“At the end of the day, it’s all about building trust. The lawyers want to practice law. If you can gain their trust on the business side, they will defer to you one day.”

Inspired, Angela devises a strategy to spark a cultural shift within the firm, aiming to create a setting that rewards initiative, creativity and, most importantly, productivity. 

Her strategy involves several pivotal actions:

  • Engage leadership: She develops tailored messaging for each key stakeholder in the firm, starting with Horace. Understanding the needs of each stakeholder, she emphasizes different factors for each, including how an entrepreneurial culture could boost motivation, client satisfaction and firm profitability.
  • Develop a communication plan: Angela communicates regularly and consistently and shares updates, success stories and challenges with everyone at the firm, encouraging a sense of participation and ownership.
  • Offer training and development: Angela gets buy-in on a mentoring program and marketing support to hone entrepreneurial skills among lawyers and staff, focusing on business development, client management and innovation.
  • Introduce a performance-based compensation model: Central to her plan is a new compensation model that incentivizes productivity, motivating lawyers and staff to innovate and take initiative.
  • Implement feedback mechanisms: To sustain the change, she plans regular feedback sessions, allowing everyone to express concerns, make suggestions and share achievements.

Soon after, Angela introduces the proposal to Horace as if it were his idea from the beginning. “Remember how you said you wished people would bill more hours? This gives everyone the incentive to do that.” Horace’s skepticism begins to soften. “Alright, Angela, let’s see how this goes. But remember, our reputation and principles have brought us this far. We can’t forget that.”

Angela leaves the meeting with Horace and breathes a deep sigh of relief. She has a chance to make things better. 

For more tips on change management and how to gain buy-in from those at your firm, check out the May 2024 Legal Management article, “How to Usher in Change at Your Law Firm (and Not Scare Staff),” along with the Legal Management Talk episode, “Change Management Techniques for Law Firms,” featuring Catherine Alman MacDonagh, JD. You can also read the first three chapters of the Linchpin